Life, liberty and politics after 9/11
Updated: Nadine Strossen, Faisal Devji, Jeffrey Rosen, Brendan O'Neill, Michael Baum and others discuss the legacy of the terror attacks.
spiked has invited writers, thinkers and activists to outline what they think has been the most enduring legacy – if any – of the attacks on New York and Washington five years ago. We want to hear your views, too. This page will be updated over the next week; to contribute, email Brendan O’Neill at Brendan.ONeill@spiked-online.com.
There is in the West a deep and constant insecurity. The fear that our civilisation is really someone else’s and our religions someone else’s has always given us the energy and the edge of the uncertain.
But 9/11 tapped directly into the weak side of that insecurity and so we fell into the trap of fear. Fear is now the driving force in the West and in the world of irregular warfare, each punch from the invisible enemy seems to so rattle our elite structures that we are drawn even deeper into the confusion that fear produces.
John Ralston Saul is an essayist, novelist and author of The Collapse of Globalism and the Reinvention of the World. He is speaking at the Battle of Ideas in London in October.
On 20 September 2001, George W Bush uttered the immortal line ‘Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists’. Almost all intelligent commentators (including myself) saw this as an absurdly crude dichotomy that dangerously over-simplified the response to 9/11.
Yet five years on we can see that the belief that the time has come to pick what side you are really on has permeated the discourse on all sides. Liberal democrats are told they must stand up for their values or have them swept away by either authoritarian Western governments or blown to smithereens by Islamic fanatics. Opponents of American ‘neo-Imperialism’ have never been so certain that to side with Bush or Blair on any aspect of policy is to be self-evidently immoral and idiotic. And, of course, the minority who believe that they have to stand up for Islam against the depravity and hypocrisy of the West has grown yet larger.
There is clearly some truth in the claim that you cannot sit on the fence forever and you must at some stage be willing to defend your most fundamental values. But as Amartya Sen has persuasively argued, the danger is that we have become too ready to see the world as being neatly divided along ideological or religious lines. Perhaps the world has become more polarised whether we like it or not, but my fear is that a large part of that polarisation is the result of our reactions to 9/11 and not the brute facts about the world it exposed. The clash of civilisations could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Julian Baggini is editor of Philosophers’ Magazine and a widely published commentator.
The events of 9/11 represented the final death blow to anti-imperialism and its attendant beliefs in solidarity, democracy and universalism. The hijackers five years ago were hardly elected representatives of an oppressed nation furthering the cause of national freedom and democratic rights. Instead they were expressing a particularistic grievance, a ‘you don’t understand because you don’t experience’ kind of nihilistic sulk.
Since the late Sixties, this type of narcissistic particularlism has grown in strength as universalism and solidarities have waned. The events of 9/11 followed the logic of a worldview that rejected transformative politics in favour of fixed essentialisms. This is why the familiar hallmarks of genuine anti-imperialist struggles, such as specific demands and appeals to solidarity, were entirely absent. Like the people trapped in the Twin Towers, particularism suggests that people are automatically damned for why they ‘are’ rather than for what they’ve done or believe in.
Far from 9/11 discrediting the corrosive trajectory of particularism, it has become strengthened. Liberal commentators now solemnly declare that the ‘humiliating’ ‘experience’ of being a Muslim must surely ‘explain’ the motives of 9/11 and other atrocities. That anyone who is not a Muslim may be against Western intervention is no longer considered by political commentators. After all, this is personal, man.
Such ideas have been greatly assisted by the radical anti-war left who, relieved that they don’t have to take sides, can either opt out (Not In My Name!) or show deference to the ‘experience’ of Muslim youth. The death of anti-imperialism, and the triumph of narcissistic particularism, is the lasting legacy of 9/11.
Neil Davenport is a writer and lecturer based in London.
In the run-up to the anniversary of 9/11, CNN’s chief international affairs correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, broadcast In the Footsteps of Bin Laden, a lengthy profile of the man. It omitted America’s role in boosting him and his anti-Soviet forces during Moscow’s occupation of Afghanistan. It also lionised the man. Just as Western coverage of Iraq inspires bin Laden’s public announcements, so CNN rewards the man with more, almost grateful coverage.
The two deserve each other. Both do the new media manipulation. Bin Laden appears to give new force to what the military theorist Martin van Crefeld, in his prescient classic On Future War, termed Low Intensity Conflict. But what is new since 9/11 is neither the scale of terror and indeed anti-terror tactics, nor their reputed effect on everyday life, but the West’s patent lack of resolution and the lack of convincing objectives on both sides. This novelty is reflected in relatively low casualty figures.
Take the First and Second World Wars. Then the basic objective was clear: the preservation or extension of different empires. Millions died. Now take Vietnam. The Viet Cong knew they wanted independence for their country. But the best argument the US could adduce was the ‘domino’ theory about communism in Asia – never very convincing. Millions of Vietnamese died. Just 60,000 Americans perished.
After 9/11 despatched about 3,000 Americans, 7/7 in London killed about 50 Brits. Two thousand Americans have died in Iraq; the 100 Iraqis killed every day by suicide bombings, though awful, do not compare with the 10,000 an hour who died during the campaign on the Somme, back in 1916. By the standards of Israel’s past treatment of the Palestinians, the death toll of the recent war in Lebanon has also been modest.
Of course, even Carl von Clausewitz would agree that there is no iron law saying that today’s weak politics will always lead to a diminished death toll. But if bin Laden does not lack resolve, his recently stated desire to convert America to Islam suggests that he may lack direction. As for America’s desire to fight wars out of fear, but with no casualties, that also suggests the same thing.
James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University in Leicester and a columnist for IT Week.
The attacks on New York and Washington were ultimately an attempt to win the flattery of the West rather than the destruction of the West. Too many analysts and commentators have asked ‘What does al-Qaeda want?’, as if this group – such as it exists – has tangible political demands or goals. In fact, bin Laden and Co.’s terrorism is a plea for attention, for the recognition of their alleged pain and suffering. In this sense, it fits in very well with today’s culture of complaint, where individuals and groups represent themselves as victims whose suffering must be recognised rather than as active agents who want to change or reshape society.
Over the past five years bin Laden has chopped and changed his justifications for 9/11. One month he says it was executed ‘for the Palestinians’, the next he says it was for the liberation of Saudi Arabia. But the one constant in his messages is the idea that the West doesn’t treat Muslim victims with the same respect that it treats Western victims. In October 2001 he said, ‘Millions of Muslims are being killed. Where are the comments of the educated? Where are the writers? Where are the scholars?’ Also in October 2001 he said ‘a million innocent children have been killed in Iraq…but we do not hear anyone condemning this, nor do we hear any judicial decree from the official scholars.’ He complains that ‘fools cry about the deaths of Americans [but] they don’t cry about the deaths of our sons’. Muslims around the world are suffering, he says, but ‘we do not hear their voices’. 9/11 was an attempt to give voice – to use a suitably therapeutic phrase – to these voiceless victims. As bin Laden said, in the past ‘the victim wasn’t even allowed to complain’, and 9/11 was an attempt to ‘rebalance that’.
9/11 itself is the legacy, the logical outcome, of today’s victim-oriented politics. In a world where different groups compete to have their victim status accorded due respect and honour, even acts of barbarous terrorism are, in essence, big, loud, bloody demands for recognition.
Brendan O’Neill is deputy editor of spiked.
The countless times I have been asked to discuss ‘balancing liberty and security post-911’ underscores a predominant assumption, which Tony Blair and Charles Clarke in the UK recently stressed explicitly: that civil liberties were a luxury that belonged to an irretrievably bygone era, and which henceforth all rational people will gladly forsake in order to preserve the lives of ourselves and our loved ones, as well as our Western democratic societies.
In the US, the Bush administration has asserted that it may unilaterally do anything in the name of counterterrorism – ranging from secretly arresting and incarcerating suspects incommunicado, to torturing them and trying them before kangaroo courts – with too little resistance from politicians of either major party, the press, or the public. I constantly think of how prescient George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was, with its perpetual state of war against randomly shifting international enemies; the identity of the ostensible enemy did not matter, since it was just a smokescreen to scapegoat citizens’ freedom.
I am not suggesting that we don’t now face all-too-real terrorist threats. Rather, believing that liberty and security are, on the whole, mutually reinforcing rather than antagonistic concerns, I am convinced that scapegoating civil liberties as a purported solution to the real dangers we face will only make us less free, not more safe.
Nadine Strossen is president of the American Civil Liberties Union.
If the 9/11 suicide hijackers had issued a statement to the world, which they pointedly did not bother to do, the familiar cry of the childhood tantrum – ‘Now look what you made me do’ – would surely best express their outlook. This act of apocalyptic barbarism was more a result of the infantilising impact of the culture of resentment and victimhood than a particular response to US foreign policy, more a gesture of impotent rage than an act of political strategy.
Five years later, 9/11 has provoked attempts at imitation, but has had little wider consequences. (Western military incursions overseas followed an independent dynamic: chaos and terror in Afghanistan and Iraq and Lebanon long predated the attacks on the Twin Towers.) Despite numerous gloomy prognostications, what is striking is how little has changed. The events of that grim day revealed a state of moral confusion in contemporary society and the extreme alienation of some young people. But 9/11 was a grim manifestation of a nihilistic outlook – it did not create this outlook and in some ways merely exposed its vacuousness.
Michael Fitzpatrick is an author and doctor in London.
Looking back on 9/11 has itself become a sign of our failure to comprehend the event. For like every other debate, discussion and dissertation upon al-Qaeda, to look back on its greatest attack is to know the movement by forensics alone. And however important this knowledge might be in predicting and preventing future attacks, it is unable to grasp the movement’s historical meaning. Such knowledge therefore remains the preserve of journalists and policemen, who continue to be our chief sources for material on al-Qaeda.
Scholars of Islam and specialists on the Muslim world, who had for the most part failed to notice the movement’s emergence before 9/11, have themselves adopted the manner of newsmen and detectives to study it. Those who do not do so insist against all evidence on linking al-Qaeda to the older models of militancy with which they are familiar – thus the attention paid to the movement’s ancestry, which supposedly includes fundamentalist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and fundamentalist thinkers like Sayyid Qutb.
Of course al-Qaeda is a product of history, but one that includes secular nationalism and atheistic communism as much as it does fundamentalism. Indeed, these political forms share much more with each other than any of them do with al-Qaeda, including a focus on the parties and ideologies as well as the elections and revolutions that characterise all modern states. None of this is true of al-Qaeda, which is a franchise rather than a party, a network rather than a hierarchy. Instead its peers are the global movements dedicated to ecology or peace whose membership is made up of disparate individuals, not classes or masses.
The almost obsessive way in which many experts on religion or terrorism connect al-Qaeda to the past, not only to the history of Muslim militancy, but also to that of anarchism or fascism, serves to conceal the fact that it actually comes to us from the future. But 9/11 is an anticipation of the future not in its violence so much as its organisation, which dispenses with the terms and categories proper to a politics dominated by states. Like its more pacific peers, al-Qaeda is neither a political nor a military movement but a civil and civilian one, whose arena, however, is not bounded by any state but comprises the entire globe.
Is it too much to say that 9/11 represents in some perverse way the emergence of a global civil society within a world still dominated by nation states? If this is indeed the case, then the violence of a movement like al-Qaeda can be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that it exists in a new global space possessing as yet no institutional or political forms of its own. Islam is therefore one name by which a still invisible global civil society can be known. It is this name, and not any shared history or religious tradition that links an Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan to a Mohammad Sidique Khan in Britain.
Faisal Devji is a professor of history at the New School University in New York, and author of Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity.
In the face of historic traumas, nations aren’t changed beyond recognition; instead, they become more like themselves. The balance between liberty and security, for example, was not changed beyond recognition in Britain and America after 9/11; both countries reacted in ways that illuminated the distinctive strengths and weaknesses of their very different political cultures.
In America, the president aggressively insisted that he had the unilateral authority to spy on American citizens and to torture and detain suspected terrorists; but the Supreme Court and Congress unequivocally rejected this constitutionally dubious vision of unchecked executive authority. Thanks to the strong libertarian strain that has defined American history from the beginning, checks and balances were more or less maintained.
In Britain, which lacks a tradition of separated powers, the prime minister was more successful in cutting back on Habeas corpus and in asserting broad powers of detention and surveillance; but the political reaction to the unsuccessful war in Iraq eventually mobilised the public to resurrect the traditional British emphasis on due process and fair play. In short term, all of the Western democracies reacted to fears of terrorism by catering to the public’s unrealistic demands for complete protection against threats that can neither be precisely measured nor prevented.
After five years, however, despite subsequent attacks, the citizens of each Western democracy calmed down a bit and reverted to historic patterns. The fact that civil liberties were challenged but not eradicated five years after the 9/11 attacks reminds us of the erratic, anxious, initially overwrought, but ultimately more reasonable values of the Western democracies themselves.
Jeffrey Rosen is professor of law at George Washington University Law School, and author of The Unwanted Gaze, The Naked Crowd, and The Most Democratic Branch.
The anxiety about it is Anxiety itself. We have manipulated ourselves into a form of structured Angst over the past five years, one that has taken the world of lower case and transformed it into its own twin towers: Terror and Security. That 9/11 instilled terror, and that action against terror involves security, no one denies. Individuals from all states know that risks are out there and acknowledge the sense of taking precautions against them. But we are never told the insurance risk, as we might be with fire or flood. We never learn what our chances are, as we do with the Lottery. Capitalisation of risk seemingly removes any need to ask quantitative questions. Your train will explode, your plane will fall from the sky; so when government constricts liberty and renders its chickens brainless when they are not actually headless, the licence comes from Terror and Security. It has to be done to protect you.
Perhaps Tony Blair is right in saying that history has nothing to say about all this. It certainly does nothing for his case. One might reasonably have expected, in the light of experience, that a catastrophe such as 9/11 would create a fever of fear for a month, a season, a year, and that thereafter a cooler sense of proportion and evaluation would ensue. That has not happened. Instead the promotion of Terror and Security to knock down arguments that prevail over all intelligent query has produced the world in which a book, a tube of sun-cream or a musical instrument have become part of the global Risk. Espousing Terror and Security confirms the contours of a culture that would rather be anything but dead, an assumption that should give us pause.
My guess is that 9/11 will be remembered as the event which began to make it clear to the West that the world is once again more pathologically bipolar, and that a long, nasty struggle is in store between the industrial world, with its liberal social and political values, and an increasingly unified, desperate and ferocious Islam. Perhaps this is a false alarm and the present antagonisms will simmer down to the point where there are only fitful local confrontations. But I think things are, sadly, headed in the other direction.
We are now at the stage where politicians, along with well-meaning intellectuals, especially in Europe, are hard at work constructing rationalisations for denying the bitter reality while they try to buy off Muslim fury with placating gestures of all sorts. I don’t think that this will last. Rather, over time, a hardline approach to the problem will become more and more the norm. The specific consequences of a global showdown are hard to predict, but I greatly doubt that they will be pleasant or humane.
Norman Levitt is professor of mathematics at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
What strikes me as most odd about the response to the 9/11 attacks was their representation as a specifically Islamic fundamentalist reaction to modernity. They were seen as mainly rooted in the caves of Afghanistan, the madrassas (Islamic schools) of Pakistan, and the desert sheikdom of Saudi Arabia. Hardly anyone seemed to notice that hostility to modernity has become mainstream in Western culture.
The enormous gains of civilisation are constantly being called into question. What were once, rightly, seen as huge benefits to humanity are now viewed with anxiety. The water that we drink and use to clean ourselves is seen as a scarce resource. Cheap food – which has liberated us from the curse of constantly living on the edge of starvation – is blamed for causing obesity. Long-distance travel is stigmatised. Cars are blamed for causing pollution and contributing to global warming. Aircraft are also accused of damaging the environment and the passengers they carry are criticised for undermining local cultures.
Attacks on modernity have their origins in the West rather than the Middle East. If a war is to be fought it should be against the ideology of anti-modernism emanating from Western societies.
Daniel Ben-Ami is a writer on economics and author of Cowardly Capitalism: The Myth of the Global Financial Casino. He is speaking at the Battle of Ideas in October.
9/11 revealed to a startled America that it had enemies who could inflict damage on US territory, something the communists never did. It led to a temporary spike in American nationalism, to the well-conceived assault on the Taliban in Afghanistan, and to the colossal blunder of the second Iraq war, which has fuelled Islamic terrorism more than any other imaginable route.
Yet in history’s long haul, 9/11 will go down as a diversion of spectacular barbarism but little import. To be sure, it reveals a new ideological enemy of the West, a tiny but relentless group who hate the West. But what may overturn the West’s liberal civilisation is not the very few who hate it, but the vast majority of Westerners who are indifferent to their heritage. Americans and Europeans created a fantastic civilisation on the back of optimism, science, individualism, liberalism, economic growth, and Christian compassion. We are losing faith in these touchstones, even in true personal liberty and social equality. Without belief in ourselves and our civilisation, we have no need of external enemies to seal our fate.
Richard Koch is co-author of Suicide of the West and is speaking at the Battle of Ideas in October.
If George W Bush can thank 9/11 for the support he came to enjoy in his first term, and for his re-election in 2004, then 9/11’s lasting impacts will comprise all the lasting impacts of the Bush administration (which seem unlikely to include the spread of pluralistic democracies in the Middle East).
I don’t know how to rank the damage this administration has wrought upon civil liberties, the environment, the economy, scientific research, efforts to contain violent fundamentalism, Iraq, or the image and influence of the US abroad. For now, I’ll simply cite one dangerous, post-9/11 political development in the US – the rise of authoritarianism, in the form of unaccountable executive power. The Supreme Court has checked perhaps the most grievous abuse of the imperial president – the unilateral assumption of power to deny all due process and fair trial rights to people interned at Guantanamo Bay. It may eventually review the administration’s warrantless domestic spying programme, which one lower federal court judge has denounced in a very controversial opinion.
But the ideological balance of the Supreme Court is as tenuous as the health of its ageing justices, and the federal judiciary in general is not a dependable defender of individual rights, which, since 9/11, have not fared nearly as well as reality TV. If politics has been changed dramatically by 9/11, popular culture seems the same, only more so.
Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer, social critic and author of Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety and several other books. She is speaking at the Battle of Ideas in October.
Recently my wife and I, together with other members of our families, attended the ‘Last night at the Proms’ at the Kenwood open-air concert in Hampstead Heath, London. It is a delightful annual event that marks the end of the summer season, with orchestral pieces including Thomas Arne’s ‘Rule Britannia’ and Edward Elgar’s ‘Pomp and Circumstance March No1’. It is always accompanied by much waving of the Union flags by the audience and a spectacular firework display. Sitting among the wreckage of their picnics, people of all ages, social classes and ethnic groups joined in. This display of jingoism was an act in self-deprecating irony, which the British do so well. No one really believes that Britain rules the waves anymore, but we are now much better at waiving the rules.
As I looked around I thought to myself: if this is decadence then I’m all for it. I love my country and thank it for the way it treated my grandparents 100 years ago after their escape from the pogroms in Russia. As a Boeing 747 flew peacefully overhead in a clear starlit sky, I was cruelly reminded of the events of 9/11 five years ago. To me this was a declaration of a global war against liberal democracies throughout the world. I am reminded of the contribution the USA made in sacrificing tens of thousands of young men so that Europe would remain free of Nazism. If that had failed, my family would have become toast. I’m reminded how the USA faced down communism and freed Eastern Europe from its grip. Now we face a new evil ideology: Islamic fundamentalism. The destruction of the twin towers should have been the clarion call to all the free world that another threat to our freedom has emerged; and yet, the UN wrings its hands and somehow the West, the victim, becomes the subject for vilification by an unholy alliance of the extreme left and Islamofascism.
It is my belief that our future lies in the hands of the Western liberal democracies that must have the courage to believe in their values, not with the UN whose membership includes nations ruled by despots or kleptocrats, each enjoying equal voting rights. My evening at Kenwood was a tiny vignette of what we are defending, with the genius of the composers emerging out of the age of Enlightenment describing our transition from subjugated serfs to free spirits.
Michael Baum is emeritus professor of surgery and visiting professor of medical humanities at University College London.
Rather than bringing awesome changes, 9/11 revealed and accelerated unhealthy trends that already existed within Western societies. Disillusionment with modernity and fear of ourselves, others and with what might be are not new; but they are now rampant. Indeed, everything, not just mislaid luggage, now seems to a have a ‘distrust’ label attached. Wondering ‘What if?’ is no longer the preserve of the paranoid but apparently a commonsense way to approach life.
For the developing world, WORLDwrite’s key area of work, this is the post-9/11 nightmare. Distrust is the order of the day: ‘good governance’ and ‘security’ are the buzzwords. From anti-democratic and intrusive surveillance schemes attached to debt relief to opposition to foreign direct investment moving into the poorest countries, no one, it seems, can be trusted – not donors, investors or third world governments and their often poverty-stricken populations. This leaves the developing world stuck, without the resources it needs or the freedom to do what it wants. Our peers in the developing world now have to suffer new levels of odious meddling by NGOs, UN bureaucrats and peacekeepers who, post-9/11, have developed new justifications for their missionary positions.
This possibly sounds bleak, but in truth it might take very little to change things for the better. For a start we could celebrate what we have, trust our fellow man and recognise that we can do good and great things. That would be the perfect snub to the 9/11 terrorists, those educated young nihilists, and also to today’s contemporary panic merchants and purveyors of doom.
Ceri Dingle is director of the youth education charity WORLDwrite (Charity No. 1060869, UN DPI-accredited NGO and DfES-registered NVYO).
The response to 9/11 confirmed that the dangerous and illogical ‘act now, find the evidence later’ imperative of precautionary thinking has become the guiding framework of our times. This has allowed governments to avoid the difficult goal of identifying a positive purpose for society by promoting the more immediate task of safeguarding vulnerable people.
Social disengagement and cynicism enabled those who claimed to be acting on behalf of the public not to be held accountable for their related actions and opinions. But absence of direction, an exaggerated perception of threat and identification as victims are the drivers of contemporary misanthropy and its associated forms of terror. The refusal to identify our pessimistic culture as the root of terrorism and other ills, together with the assumed need to be seen to be doing something, has postponed social progress.
I had always thought that the next world war would be a religious conflict. For me 9/11 announced that this incipient religious war had indeed gone global. We now have a war of belief against unbelief and it is not clear that this will be confined to the current conflict between Islam and the West. Secularisation is almost always celebrated by liberals, as if religion were such a curse that the unenlightened have to be liberated – by force if necessary – from its clutches. But religion represents the values and beliefs of the overwhelming majority of the world population. The resultant war on world religion conducted by the West through capitalism, sex and glamour was therefore not likely to be unopposed.
In a direct conflict between the free market and faith it was not clear that religion would lose – in many parts of the world it did not. The vital ingredient for the subsequent success of Western globalising capital was provided by the European Enlightenment and the perverse humanism that it gave birth to. By insisting that all humans and all cultures had to be remodelled according to the new Western construct of acquisitive individuals who constructed their own truths, modern liberalism aborted the constraints of communal religion and gave fresh impetus and moral legitimation to imperialism and Empire.
That this legacy has come back to haunt us is not commonly recognised. Once the collective faiths and the communal codes that the Islamic faithful lived by were brutally suppressed by secular Western elites, religion was privatised and denied public expression. Confined to the ghetto, the Islamists, appalled at the world that was forced upon them, copied the structures of Western humanism. They produced their own self-made religious absolute whose universal applicability was also insisted upon. Thus is al-Qaeda the bastard offspring of a perverted Islam and a nihilistic West.
So the new world war has already begun. It is religious and it will spread. At first it will be local, asymmetrical and conducted via the means and methodology of terror – but soon this ideology will capture nation states (as it has already in the US and Iran) and then who knows where it will end or what its consequence might be? 9/11 thus represents an intensification and globalisation of a process that was already underway.
Philip Blond is lecturer in theology and philosophy at St Martin’s College in Lancaster, and author of Post-Secular Philosophy: Between Philosophy and Theology. He is speaking at the Battle of Ideas in October.
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